Diana Athill stopped thinking of herself as a sexual being in her mid-70s, and “after a short period of shock at the fact, found it very restful”. She had become another sort of creature: an Old Woman! “It was like coming out on to a high plateau, into clear, fresh air, far above the antlike bustle going on down below me.” Now, the memories of men mix in companionably with everything else: a bluebell wood at dawn, Venice, the white beaches of the Caribbean and her grandmother’s kitchen garden. “When I was marvelling at the beauty of a painting or enjoying a great view, it did not occur to me that the experience, however intense, would be of value many years later. But … now out it comes, shouldering aside even the most passionate love affairs and the most satisfying achievements, to make a very old woman’s idle days pleasant instead of boring.”
Athill’s new book is a further instalment of news from that high plateau of old age which she has already written about in Somewhere Towards the End and elsewhere, and it is full of clear, fresh air and bright distance. The conditions of extreme age seem to agree with her assured and reasonable temperament; there must be some stoical endurance in the mix but it is kept decently out of sight, as if it would be bad form to be anything but buoyant, at the end of such a life. Since she last reported, she has moved into a home for older people, and it is characteristic that she refuses to describe this as a decision forced on her. On the contrary, she insists, it is one of the few important things she has consciously chosen or for herself – unlike her education or her career, not having married or had children. She had thought she would hate being in a home, but realised in her early 90s that the alternative meant relying on her friends for more help than it was fair to ask, and so made up her mind.
The place she found is in Highgate in north London, with a garden, a library, a computer room and wonderful care. It is run by a charity, not for profit, and “no one has ever been asked to leave on account of running out of money”; staff are kind and always “strict about respect” – it’s like going back to boarding school, she thinks, cheerfully enough. But the rooms aren’t very big; the great wrench was having to lose most of her possessions – her “magpie’s nest of beloved things”. When she first contemplated getting rid of four-fifths of her books and three-quarters of her clothes, she couldn’t bear it: these things seemed to be her history, they seemed to be herself. The “horrible feeling came in surges, like fits of nausea”. Her nephew spent the best part of a day holding up one book after another. “In or out?” he would ask. And then once she moved into the home she made unexpected new friendships, and it was a delight to be free of domestic responsibilities. She even insists that she enjoys her wheelchair: nothing “could be more luxurious than being pushed around a really crowded and thrilling exhibition … ”. She doesn’t mention missing her books or her clothes at all. Another test, another lesson learned.
One of the chapters or short essays that make up this book is called “Lessons”; the patterns of our moral thinking are instilled in early education and although Athill grew up to interrogate the certainties of her parents, she belongs to a generation taught to keep its moral copybook. The most important lessons, she writes, are to “avoid romanticism and abhor possessiveness”; in conjunction with sexuality these can be “lethal”, and she is sure that avoiding and abhorring them has helped her to have, “in spite of various setbacks”, a happy life. This pattern of testing and resilience, of falling back in a crisis on certain saving patterns of learned response, recurs in the memoirs. She has written before about a shattering love affair in her early youth, in the war – her fiance wrote to break off their engagement (he had met someone else) just before he was killed in action. With rueful amusement she speculates now that it may have been a childhood pride, internalised on seeing “how much of the world was coloured pink”, that got her through the crisis. You might grow up to be clear-eyed about the iniquities of empire, but the pride by that time is built in to your emotional life.
There may be uses, too, in the middle-class repressions that made her so impatient in her youth, when her mother pretended not to see anything she didn’t want to know. When Athill was unexpectedly pregnant in her 40s, and decided to keep the baby, she dreaded telling her mother most of all, and wrote a letter to her but delayed posting it. In the end she miscarried, and the letter was never sent. When she published her first book, she and her mother couldn’t speak about it, except through her brother. It occurs to her now, however, that the codes and the repressions have their uses. Not talking about their differences made it possible for her and her mother to be so close, in her mother’s old age. And, of course, even the blunt truth-telling of Athill’s style is its own code, its own performance of self; inside its lucidity and reasonableness we glimpse the shadows stirring, panics and shames withheld.
What might help us have such a good old age as this? Luck, of course – the great good luck of health, and keeping your wits, and having the right connections to find your way into the right old people’s home. But character, that alchemy of genes and nurture and experience and will, is crucial too – this same life story could have been told very differently, inflected through disappointment. Athill’s temperamental bias is towards taking pleasure: in clothes and food and travel and sex, and in her own intelligent penetration, in seeing things clearly. She was Jean Rhys’s publisher, of course; it’s interesting that she responded so acutely to Rhys’s quite opposite personality – fatalistic and fearful, drowning in doubt. If Athill suppresses the angsts, Rhys dissembled her force under performances of weakness. The unlikeness is even there in their physical selves: Athill statuesque and commanding, Rhys petite and flinching.
Athill did grow up to be clear-eyed about empire. Remembering pelicans circling above the silky sea in Tobago, the fisherman’s conch shell summoning customers, and the dream forests with no dangerous animals or poisonous snakes, she is quite clear that the island isn’t paradise for those who live there, “bone-poor”, “in houses without drainage, where water had to be fetched from a standpipe”. She questions the appetite of tourists from the wealthy developed world for what is unspoiled, skewering the uneasy socialising between the black islanders and the white visitors, including herself. Athill lived for 40 years with her lover and companion Barry Reckord, the late Jamaican playwright, and no doubt that relationship sharpened her alertness to white condescension; but the unsparingness is her own, anyway. She is just as acute about class – and about how it is precisely the privilege, and the confidence it confers, that make possible the self-critique.
Like others of her background, with her passion for social justice, she wondered for a while in her youth whether communism was a solution, and confesses it was mostly laziness that held her back from joining the party. “It seemed to me that devotion to the cause would be hard work and leave little time for the pleasant frivolities which I was enjoying so much.” Her experience of living through the decades of the gradual amelioration of living conditions and growth of inequality in the UK makes her dismayed by “our present dive into poverty” and our present politics. British politicians haven’t understood, she thinks, “the difference between being at the hub of a vast empire and being a tiny island off the shores of … Europe”. She wonders if in the end we will have to settle for being a mere tax haven, for the rich of other countries – if so, then she is glad that she won’t live to find out.
• Tessa Hadley’s novel The Past is published by Cape. To order Alive, Alive Oh! for £10.39 (RRP £12.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.